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Contemplating divorce? How to tell the kids

The decision to restructure a family is never easy. Here’s some thoughts to guide you in navigating the first steps, including sharing the situation with the children.

Don’t make them choose a side

There is a great deal of research proving that children need a connection to both parents in every stage of development, whenever possible.

 “The most important issue is that the children need to be connected with both parents.” (C. Ahrons, Pathways to Good Divorce: The Children’s Perspective)

 “Assure your child that it is all right to love each parent. Don’t put your child in a position of divided loyalties or having to choose sides.” (E. Bucknam & S. Shuler, Effective Co-Parenting: Putting Kids First)

“Kids need our parents to be friends enough so that they let each other love us the way we need loving.” (Marsha Klein-Pruett quoting a child of divorce in Only God Decides: Young Children’s Perceptions of Custody and Divorce).

In that final quote, friendship is mentioned. Can we really be friends with our ex-spouse as we restructure? There may be deep hurt, but it may be possible to work together within a child’s definition of friendship. Kindness, respectful voices, supportive language, greeting hello and goodbye, these are all external signs of friendship from a child’s perspective. 

These simple external signs of mutual respect - and each parent’s effort to speak non-judgmentally about the other - will support the child in not having to choose sides and defend one parent from another.

Make a plan to tell the children together

Before saying anything to the kids, it is very important to clarify what you will say. This will allow both parents to share a consistent message. It is normal for children to ask and re-ask questions, so knowing your key messages will help everyone to be on the same page.

As emotions may run high during this first talk with the children, planning your words can simplify the task. Reading your message may feel easier. Ideally, both adults will be together when telling the kids. You can share a written summary of the message with other adults in the family as well. Hearing consistent language from multiple sources will be helpful for the children.

When a family restructures, everything can feel up in the air. Work on being honest, age-appropriate, and consistent to better support the kids. Don’t say things you don’t know to be true. It’s perfectly okay for a parent to tell a child, “I don’t know. I’ll let you know as soon as we have an answer to that.” Only tell kids things that you can follow through with so that they can feel safe.

Of course, it’s possible that both parents will not be in constant contact with the children. Be honest about the information you have with as little judgment of the other parent as possible. You can empathize with the child, without bad-mouthing the other parent.

For example, “It’s so hard for you not to see Mummy all the time. All these big feelings can be overwhelming. I hope that she’ll find a way to see you at some point.”

When it comes to telling kids about separation and divorce, we need to focus on how this will impact their day-to-day lives. Who will be taking care of them? Where will they be living? Who will make them breakfast, take them to school, etc.? How will their lives stay the same? If they are moving houses, they will likely want to know where, and what their rooms will be like. Will they be going to the same school or childcare, will there be a park, etc.?

Here are some phrasing suggestions to help you start the planning process: 

  • “For our family to work best, Mom and Dad need to live in separate houses. Both of us will spend time with you, we love you very much.”
  • “This will be a big change for all of us. Here are some things that won’t change: You will still sleep in this house, in your own room. You will still go to piano lessons and play with your friends. Dad will be here to make dinner and to put you to bed and he will be here if you get scared or need help.” 
  • “It will be different now that we all won’t be living together. We’ll work hard to be able to have [other parent] visit regularly, and we can talk on the phone. You might have all sorts of feelings about these changes. Whatever you are feeling is okay. The adults can handle your big feelings. We will be having big feelings too. We are strong and can handle big feelings. We both love you and know that we need to live separately to be the best parents we can be for you. If you have questions, you can ask, and we’ll answer.”

Next steps on the restructuring journey

Whenever you tell the kids, they will have a wide variety of reactions, from tears to silence and all things in between. The situation will take time to become real for them. They will most likely miss whichever parent is not around as much. 

As you move through this process, they will need to be supported through all their emotions. They will need to know that change can be hard and that it’s normal to find it harder some days than others. It’s important for them to know that parents may feel sad from time to time, and it’s not the kids’ job to make the parents happy. 

If truthful, reassure them that you will still work as a family team even from different houses. It’s okay to ask for help from friends and family, and other professionals during this time. When you, as parents, have the support you need, you can do a better job of supporting those depending on you.

Author, blogger, podcast host and parenting expert, Julie has been supporting parents across North America for 20 years. Through her company JFS Parent Education, she helps parents find relief from their everyday parenting challenges. Want to know how she can help you? Email her today: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..


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